Parity seems to have descended over the NFL again this year, and no team has been more mercurial than the 49ers. After possibly their most impressive regular-season win in a decade over Green Bay on opening day, the 49ers then lost 24-13 two weeks later to the Vikings, a 3-13 team in 2011.
For the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, the 49ers lost the battle at the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder wasn't sacked despite the fact he went back to pass 42 times and the Vikings also rushed for 147 yards, the most a 49ers' defense has yielded in the 19-game Harbaugh era.
On offense, quarterback Alex Smith was consistently harassed, and sacked three times and the 49ers only mustered 89 yards rushing.
Sunday's matchup against the Jets could clear up just which team the 49ers really are, the one that topped most power ranking lists after Week 2, or the mediocre group that consistently tripped over its own mistakes in Minnesota.
In their loss in the Metrodome, the 49ers allowed plays that would have never happened last year, when they went 13-3. Ponder weaved through the heart of their defense for a 23-yard touchdown. Last season, the 49ers didn't allow a rushing touchdown for the first 14 games, and when they did it was on a short run by possibly the toughest running back in the league in Seattle's Marshawn Lynch. Overall, the 49ers were uncharacteristically undisciplined, committing three penalties in the game-clinching drive by the Vikings in the fourth quarter.
Last year, they consistently took advantage of turnovers and special teams. Against Minnesota, kickoff returns by Kyle Williams set them up at midfield and the Vikings' 14 in the second half. But the offense only mustered a field goal in those two drives.
What was most curious was the team's disinterest in challenging the Vikings' injured and talent-challenged secondary. NFL films analyst and senior producer Greg Cosell watched the film of the 49ers-Vikings game and was surprised that the 49ers didn't even attempt to run deep routes.
"They really didn't attack with their routes at the intermediate and deeper levels," Cosell said. "At some point, they may want to start doing that."
With the acquisitions of Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, the 49ers have two players to go deep, but will they? Cosell said they only go deep off of what he calls "shot" plays, which are only done out of certain formations with the design to provide max protection.
The 49ers may feel that either quarterback Alex Smith can't go deep or that they can't protect him if he does attempt a long pass. Smith was sacked 44 times last year, more than any other starter, and Cosell said while right tackle Anthony Davis is improved, he still needs work with his pass protection.
Smith has also yet to find a chemistry with his new receivers.
"We're still trying to get on the same page," Manningham said. "We're not fully on the same page like we want to be -- me and him or him and the other wideouts. But I feel like we're getting there."
A Darrelle Revis-less Jets may provide the 49ers another opportunity to throw deep. If the 49ers do throw deep, the rest of the league might get part of the answer of who the 49ers really are.